PART1

MALCOLM

 

 

Chapter 1

Getting Into Character

 

Sometimes it’s not about how you feel, it’s just about knowing what you have to be and making yourself be that. When I wake up in the morning I don’t feel like a killer, but still, I know that when the sun goes down I have to find it in myself to be that guy.

At eight a.m. I carry a shallow ceramic mug full of strong coffee out of the sliding glass door of my apartment and sit on my four foot by eight foot second floor patio.  I drink my morning java on plastic lawn furniture and admire the low morning sun over the lifeless retaining pond that was built at the same time as the complex. It’s the suburbs.

It’s hard to feel more than two dimensional living in the burbs. They’re flat and endless with no character or energy. At six o’clock the parking lot of my building is packed with blue and gray four door sedans and minivans. By seven it’s virtually empty. The residents parade out single file like it’s some national holiday celebrating mediocrity, then at six in the evening they shuffle back in and you’d never know anything had happened.

It’s a slow, long, tortured purgatory, like being drawn out on the rack for twelve hours a day. I feel the boredom as a physical pain and it pushes me to be who I have to be. It reminds me that what I do at night, while not noble perhaps, is necessary.  Necessary for me.

At eight p.m. the cool evening air begins to roll in, and with it come the clouds.  I shower and shave.  I poor vodka from the freezer over two olives and set the glass on my dresser.  Drinking helps. It helps set the mood, but it’s a fine needle to thread.  Too much, even a little too much and I’m foggy and unreliable.

I dress in exactly what you’d expect.  Black slacks, white shirt, black tie and jacket.  My hair is short and clean cut, parted neatly and free of product.  I have a Beretta .45 in a hip holster under my jacket and a small four inch switchblade in my right pants pocket.

By nine o’clock the sun has dipped below the horizon and the moon is a washed out blotch of white light halfway up the sky.  The thunder started half an hour ago and now the rain is falling in huge drops the size of alligator teeth. I’m wet by the time I reach my car, and even with the wipers on full blast the windshield is a streaky watercolor of yellow and black.

When the engine of my twenty year old Cadillac starts up the cassette in the deck clicks on and Johnny Cash announces  loudly that God’s gonna cut me down.  I nod my head in silent agreement and brush the wet hair out of my eyes.  I look at myself in the rearview mirror, squint and wipe my face with my hands. I grip the steering wheel at ten and two and inspect my worn out knuckles. It’s about making yourself believe you are who you need to be.

My knife finds its way out of my pocket and I push up on the sleeves of my jacket and shirt.  The blade snaps open with a deadly sounding switch and I slide the tip into my forearms just deep enough to draw blood.  I make fists, tight desperate fists and the blood from the wounds begins to flow down my arms and between my fingers.  I pump the fists open and shut, forcing out more blood until I’m covered wrists to fingertips.

I close the knife and slide it back into my pocket, then I pull my sleeves back down.  The open flesh on my arms burns and draws my focus.  I feel damaged, broken, and I watch as the crimson begins to soak into the clean white fabric of my shirt cuffs.  The rain pounds the steel and glass of my car and the hillbilly on the radio shouts at me about God’s wrath and suddenly I feel myself slip into the person I’m looking for.  The transformation feels oily and sick like a fever about to break.

I drop the car into gear and feed gas to the hungry engine.  The beast machine screams and I hold the wheel tight as my iron dragon caries me towards the fiery lights of the city.

 

Chapter 2

I wish it harder to do.  It seems to me that killing a man should be difficult, and what does it say about us, people, that we’ve worked harder and harder to make it easier.  It isn’t hard to do though, and it only takes a moment.

I park my car in a tower a few blocks away and walk in the drowning rain.  When I get to his building I stand on the stoop and stare up at the flat brick face of it.  He lives here.  He has a sofa and a television, plates and bowls and probably cereal.  He thinks he’s just a guy and tonight is just a night.  It should be harder to prove him wrong.

I walk half a block into the alley between his building and the next and find a spot just in the shadows and wait.  The rain slows and I watch it peter out in the yellow glow of the street lamps.  It isn’t long after that.

The steps come slow and casual, splashing lightly across wet cement with a patience I wish I felt.  Then his profile breaks through the edge of my field of vision and for just a moment he’s perfect.  A beautiful dark silhouette on the oil painting of my city and I want nothing more than just for him to live.  Moments like this are painfully short.

I step forward into the light and before he turns his head my switchblade snaps open like a thunderclap and the blade is between his ribs.  He gasps and chokes and my left hand is around his throat.  I pull him in and hold him against me like a lover, whispering in his ear that this will be short, that I won’t let him hurt too long.  I turn us in two steps and throw him against the weathered soft brick of his home.  His head bounces off it like a rubber ball and I see the confusion vanish from his eyes as they roll up into his head.  He collapses on the pavement in a crumpled mess of bloody laundry.

The candy apple red from his side mixes with rainwater and my own vital fluid creating a cascade of pale pink liquid that pools at my feet.  I bend over and pat him down but find only a crumpled pack of Marlboro’s and a lady’s Zippo lighter.

I pull my gun and crouch across from the man, watching the vanishing rain dance on his pale face.  I light one of his cancer sticks and smoke while I wait for him to come back to me.  Towards the end of the butt his eyes flutter and open with a desperate rattled expression.

I level the barrel of my weapon between his eyes.

“Hi Chris,” I say.

He’s bleeding and not sure where he is.  It hurts for him to breath and the pain in his ribs is preventing him from sitting up.

“It’s okay Chris, you don’t have to sit.  Just lie there for now.  Try and stay comfortable.”

He’s frightened, not sure what to make of me.  Not sure if I’m his friend or his monster.  He breathes shallowly and winces when he tries to move.  Eventually he takes my advice and settles into a position that provides the least amount of agony.

“I know it hurts, and I am sorry for that.  Chris, I don’t want you to feel like you have to do a lot of talking tonight, okay?  I know it’s difficult so I’ll try and keep the conversation centered on yes or no kinds of questions, okay?”

He looks at me pitifully and I really wish I could make it all better for him.  After a moment he nods and I smile.

“Good job Chris. You got it perfect.”

He coughs and his lips turn red.  I put the cigarette out on the pavement and lean in a bit.

“We’ll start simple,” I say. “Do you know who I am Chris?”

His head shakes no.

“Of course not, no reason you should. Do you know why I’m here?”

A pause, then he coughs again and tries to speak.”

“Money,” he wheezes.

I shake my head.

“Oh Chris, no.  No it’s not money.”

I crouch and get very close to the ground.  I turn my head sideways and look the man deep in his eyes.

“Do you know Kelly Phillips, Chris?”

His shallow breath stops and the pupils in his eyes go wide.

“Right,” I say.  “That’s what I thought.”

I sit up again and watch him try and move.  His breath is back but short and fast and his face is painted with panic.  He’s coughing and I can hear the blood in his lungs.  He’s trying to talk, he wants to explain.  They always want to explain.

“I-”

I let out a long sigh.

“You what Chris?”

I see tears beginning to pool at the corners of his eyes and his chokey bloody breaths take on the telltale characteristics of crying.

“I didn’t-”

“Yes you did Chris.  You did.  Right?  You wish you didn’t.  Right now you wish you didn’t, but you did.”

He opens his mouth and his teeth and tongue are covered in blood.

“Can I tell you a secret Chris?  I wish you hadn’t.  I really do, and not just for Kelly’s sake.  I mean, the poor girl, she didn’t deserve that.  But even if it had had to happen, I wish it hadn’t been you.  Every time I sit here like this I wish for it to not be the guy.”

He looks at me like he’s begging.  Begging me to walk away.  To let this be enough.  To let it be over.

“Just once,” I say.  “Just once I want them to get it wrong.  To give me a job and have it turn out they had the wrong guy.  Then I could actually sleep.  I could go to Mica and says ‘sorry, you made a mistake, I had to let him go’.”

He’s outright sobbing now, and blood is running down his chin and neck.

“I just want to be done with this,” I tell him.  “I just want one excuse to tell them I won’t do it anymore.  But every time I have one of you pieces of shit like this, spitting blood and asking me to grant you mercy, every time you’re guilty.  How do I let you walk when you did what she says you did?”

I stand up.

“How do I pretend you didn’t hurt that girl? How do I pretend you won’t do it again?”

He wheezes.

“I won’t. I can’t. I can’t pretend.”

I look at him for a long time, then I lift the gun and click the trigger as simply as taking a picture.  There’s a flash and the air shatters around us.  I feel the detonation of the ammunition crash hard against my hand and the pressure wave moves through my arm and dissipates in my back.  When the ringing in my ears stops I’m sitting in my car.  I light another one of his cigarettes and crack the window an inch.  I drive home on auto pilot, not thinking about where I’m going or where I’ve been.  I sleepwalk into my apartment and stand in a hot shower until the water runs cold.  I dry my hair in a soft warm towel and put bandages over the holes in my arms.

My gun and knife go in a safe in my closet and I slide into a pair of thin cotton pajama pants.  I slide silently into my cool crisp bed and lay my head on a firm memory foam pillow.  As my mind grows foggy and distant I feel my wife roll over and wrap herself around me.  The world grows quiet and I drift away to sleep.

 

 

Chapter 3

When I wake up my wife is in the shower singing to herself.  I roll over and put my feet on the floor.  I’m tired still and my body aches from the unused adrenaline produced last night.  I cough up some brownish phlegm from the cigarettes and spit it in a tissue.

I hear the shower stop.  My wife walks in the room naked and traipses over to her dresser with an energetic spring in her step.

“Good morning love,” she says cheerfully.

“Good morning Elle,” I say while rubbing my eyes with both hands.

“How was work?”

I cough again.

“Long,” I say.

“Tough client?” she asks.

“Not particularly,” I say.  “Pretty standard, just a late night.”

She turns and looks at me sympathetically while she steps into her panties.

“Did you talk to Mica about cutting back on some of the night shifts?”

I yawn, stretch and stand up.

“No, it was too late when I got done.  I just wanted to get home.  I thought I’d swing by this morning and have a few words with her.”

“Well, be tough.  Stand your ground.  You’ve been doing all the over nights lately.  She’s got to have someone else that can take a night shift or two.”

I laugh and walk over to her.  I kiss her forehead.

“I’ll do what I can,” I tell her.

I walk into the bathroom and sit on the toilet.  I grab the toothbrush from the shower and scrub my teeth while I’m doing my business.  Elle come in, dressed now.  She’s in three inch nude heels, stockings and a skirt suit that is more than a little flattering on her.  She spritzes her hair with some aerosol product and comes over to kiss me goodbye.

“Hey, how come everyone at work gets to see you all decked out in the naughty lawyer garb, but all I get is the jammy pants and t-shirt?”

She laughs.

“You got to see me naked two seconds ago.”

“Not the same thing,” I argue.

“Well, I’ll tell you what.  You go tell your boss to stop hogging all your evenings and I’ll show you just what a naughty lawyer I can be.”

I smile.

“Deal,” I say.

“Okay,” she says.  “Gotta go put away those bad guys.”

She kisses my lips and saunters out of the bathroom with a sassy sway in her hips that is intended to show me just what I’m missing when I work late.

I sigh.

“Time to put on my big boy panties and talk to the boss.”

Another shower and I’m back in my uniform.  I holster my weapon and comb back my hair.  I’m out of the house by nine a.m.  I steer my car back towards the city, rehearsing my conversation in my head.

“Look Mica, I owed you.  I owed you a lot, but that was fifteen years ago and I’ve been working it off ever since.  Don’t you think maybe we’re even by now?  Can’t we just call it square?  Can’t I ever just walk away?”

I chuckle to myself at the absurdity of it.  I work for Mica Kole.  That’s a present tense statement, always.  No one ever says they worked for Mica, because anyone in the position to say that honestly isn’t so much talking anymore.

On paper it seems like Mica is the good guy, or gal as it were in this case, but that’s on paper.  It’s like saying the Pharos of Egypt were amazing because of the beautiful pyramids they built.  You’re kind of leaving out how they managed to get that done in the first place.

I’m not saying I’m a slave, I’m just saying I work for Mica and to my knowledge anyone who works for Mica only ever works for Mica.  Mica does good things.  She gets real scumbags off the streets.  Not petty crooks, real assholes that hurt people.  She does this in one of two ways.  Either she “converts” them like she did with me, or she sends a convert to eliminate them.

A lot of folks like this system fine.  The lawful system doesn’t work for shit here, so folks who just want their daughters to be able to walk home from school without being shot… or worse, well, they think Mica is a hero.  Hell, I used to too.

Chapter 4

When I was nineteen I was a piece of shit.  The only reason I graduated High School was that failing me would have hurt the school’s graduation stats more than it would hurt my future.  I dealt ecstasy and heroin and quite a bit of pot to kids at the Jr. College near my house as well as the High School, and even the Jr. High if they had money.

I screwed a lot.  I’d tell girls anything they wanted to hear to get in their pants, and if that didn’t work I’d trade them drugs for sex.  I smacked girls around and beat the shit out of any guy that I thought I could take just to show that I could.  I stole… anything.  From anyone.  Family, friends, strangers.  It didn’t matter.  I was an absolute waste of the air around me and I thought that acting that way made me look powerful.

I wasn’t powerful though.  I wasn’t even weak really.  I was nothing, and I didn’t even know it until that night in the city.  I’d grown up in the suburbs and all my thuggary had been inflicted against other suburban kids.  Kids who had easy lives and wealthy parents.  Kids who were easy to take advantage of.  I found the city to be a much different place.

I had a “client”, a kid at the High School who I sold a lot of E to.  He told me he had a cousin in the city that was looking for a big supply for a party.  She didn’t have any money, but she was fine and she’d do a three way with me and her girlfriend for fifteen pills.  I wasn’t going to say no to that.

The kid set it up and that weekend we drove to the city.  Her place was a run down public housing tower across the street from a boarded up apartment building that had black burn marks around all the window openings.  There was no security door at the entrance, so we made our way to her place unannounced.  When we rang the bell at her door it was opened by her old man.

He was old and gnomish in a greasy undershirt with his belly hanging out like he was eight and a half months pregnant.  He didn’t seem phased by our request to see his daughter so we slid past him to a small bedroom just past the kitchen.

The girl was cute, and her friend was really hot.  The started kissing as soon as we sat down, then they both made their way over to me and started reaching for my fly.  That’s when I put on the brakes.  I told them I wasn’t going to fuck them a room away from her craggy old man, and I certainly wasn’t going to do it right in front of her pervy cousin.

She suggested we head across the street to the other building.  I don’t know what made me think that shagging in a burnt out condemned building was better, but I was pretty wound up at that point so, I suppose I just wasn’t thinking at all.

The building next door was like standing inside a filthy fireplace.  Soot covered the walls and there was charred debris everywhere.  In the corner of the entryway, just ten feet from the front door, was a thick dirty mattress.

The girls jumped on it immediately and looked back at me while running their hands up under each other’s shirts.  My brain was on fire, and I had pins and needles running down my neck.  I had tunnel vision looking at the two of them kissing and touching each other.  In retrospect, it’s not surprising that I forgot to close the door we came in through.

I walked over to the bed and let them undo my pants.  They pulled them down to my knees, then did the same with my boxers.  The friend took my junk in her hand and squeezed tight.  I looked down at her to tell her to ease up and noticed they were both looking right past me with matching grins.

Then I heard the click.

The girls jumped up on the mattress and started laughing and squealing with overhyped teenage glee.  They were bouncing and laughing and pointing and calling me profane names.  I turned my head to see the father standing behind me with a dull, beat up revolver pointing right at my head.

They took the drugs, my wallet, my shoes and socks, my car keys and some pot I had on me for later, then the old man told the girls to get gone and they did.  He told me to get on my knees.  I did as I was told.  I started crying, kneeling there with my bare limp dick swinging between my pasty thighs, waiting for the sound I probably wouldn’t even have time to hear.

When the sound came it was different than I expected.  Less of a bang and more of a crack.  Then a loud grunt and a thud.  After a moment of silence a new voice told me to get up.  There was a new man standing behind me.  He was dressed like he was going to a funeral and holding a long wooden baseball bat.  Next to him, on the ground, was the girl’s dad, lying unconscious.

I was a blubbering mess.  I tried to say thank you, but the man told me I’d better not.  He told me that the day would come when thanking him would be the last thing I wanted to do.  That’s when he took me to meet Mica Kole.

 

 

Chapter 5

I park my car in a spacious parking lot on the near north side of the city.  Behind me is a wide, low, brown building with a red clay roof and a man made brook that tumbles through dense coniferous vegetation.  There’s a small stone bridge that arcs over the water between the parking lot and the flat river stone path that leads to the entrance.

The double doors at the front of the building are wide and fashioned out of two solid pieces of weathered wood.  They’re thick and heavy and hung with black iron hardware.  Inside, the lights are low and everything has a vaguely reddish glow.  The space is divided into two large dining rooms separated by a wide open air kitchen.  All the tables are low to the ground and, absent chairs, are surrounded by colorful overstuffed pillows.

I approach the host stand and tell the smiling young japanese girl to let Mica know that Malcolm Karma is here to see her.  The girl smiles, bows politely, and disappears into one of the dining rooms.  When she returns she smiles again and tells me that Mica will see me.

I walk to the back of the dining room to a small doorway covered by a dense curtain of tiny beads.  Outside the door stands an imposing man in a dark suit.  Exactly the same one I’m wearing.  Don is Mica’s body guard, as if she needed one, and is the one person on earth you don’t want with your name in his pocket.  Don knows two things, one is that Mica lives, and two is that everyone else is expendable.  He nods at me as I pass through the beaded curtain.

The room is small and painted a deep rusty red.  The floor is made of narrow planks of bamboo and there are several well kept bonsai trees on low platforms throughout the space.  Mica is sitting barefoot and cross legged on the floor behind a wide mahogany table that supports a laptop computer, a large black softcover ledger book and various scattered file folders and loose sheets of paper.  She smiles up at me warmly as I remove my shoes and take a seat across from her on a large forest green silk pillow.

“Good morning Mal,” she says sweetly.  “I had kind of thought I would see you last night.  Everything go okay?”

I nod the affirmative.

“Yeah, it was just late,” I say.  “I wanted to try and catch Elle before she fell asleep.”

“I see,” she says.

There’s an extended moment of silence, made longer by unbroken eye contact.

“Well,” she says, finally looking away.  “Here’s your fee.”

She lifts a wide business envelope off the table and holds it out to me.  I stare at it for a moment before leaning forward and taking it out of her hand.

“Thanks,” I say.

She nods.

“So, I don’t have anything else for you today, but I’ll give you a call later this week when something comes up.”

I sit paralyzed, unable to get up, but equally unable to say the words I’ve been practicing for days.  The moment grows and quickly becomes uncomfortable.  Mica tilts her head and squints at me with a suspicious gaze.

“Everything go okay last night?” she asks again.

I nod silently feeling my face drain of blood.

“Was there something you wanted to talk about?” she asks.

I feel a lump form in my throat and my hands go cold and clammy.  My tongue dries up and my stomach starts doing cartwheels.

“Mal, what’s on your mind?” she asks with a bit more urgency.

I feel myself breathing too heavily and I start to get light headed.

“Mal, if you need-”

“I want out!” I blurt.

Mica stops and stares at me blankly.

“I- I know what you did for me.  I- I know I owe you- owed you I mean.  Uh.  I just.  Ya know that was fifty- I mean fifteen years ago and I’m just- I’m not that kid anymore and uh-”

I’m spinning my wheels, trying to get traction on the subject.  I’m trying to be cool, but it’s totally getting away from me.

“I love Elle.  I- I want to have kids.  I don’t want-”

I feel like I’m going to throw up.  I put my hands out on the table for balance.

“Malcolm!” Mica says firmly.

The room is spinning and I lean forward and put my head on the table.  Mica stands up and walks around to me.  She kneels down and puts and arm around my shoulders.

“Slow down,” she says.  “Take it easy.  Slow down.  Deep breath, it’s okay Mal.  Don’t go passing out on me now.”

I start to calm down.  My breath slows.  I feel her delicate fingers on my back rubbing soft circles, then up and down, caressing my neck with her finger nails.  I take a long deep breath and begin to regain my composure.  I’m suddenly very embarrassed.

“Mica, I-”

“Shhh,” she hushes me.  “I know it’s hard.  It’s scary quitting your job for the first time.  I know, I’ve been there too.”

I look over at her.  Her face is soft and friendly.  She has deep emerald eyes that sparkle against her campfire red hair.  She pats me on the shoulder and smiles genuinely, then stands up and walks back around the table.

She crouches and lifts up an expertly hidden section of floor and presses her thumb against a raised glass square.  Theres the sound of two hollow clicks and she lifts a door open and pulls a stack of manilla envelopes out of the hole in the floor.  She flips through the stack until she finds what she is looking for, then removes a single envelope and places the rest back in the hole.  She closes the heavy metal door and replaces the bamboo planks.  When she’s finished I can’t tell where the spot even was.  She reaches out to hand me the envelope.

“What’s that?” I ask.

“Your retirement package,” she says.

“My what?”

“Like a pension,” she says. “I set a little aside after every job so when you’re done you have something to get you going on your own.”

I look at her dumbstruck.

“What did you think was going to happen Mal?”

I don’t say anything.

She smiles.

“Malcolm, you’ve done well.  You’ve grown up and improved your character significantly.  Hell, you worked for me and married a prosecutor.  That takes a special kind of balls if you ask me.  You deserve to enjoy the rest of your life.  Go, move out of town, put a baby in your wife and enjoy being unemployed for a bit.  I promise, we’ll get by without you.”

I let out a huge high and feel a thousand pounds of worry run off my shoulders like sand.  I smile and grip the envelope tightly.

“Thank you,” I say.

Mica smiles.

I stand up and give a deferential bow.

“Thank you again,” I say.

I slip my shoes on and turn and walk out the doorway.  I’m ten feet away when I hear Mica call Don into her room.  As I walk out the front doors I see don stepping inside her office.

 

 

Chapter 6

 

I drive home with a smile.  The first envelope Mica gave me has nine hundred dollars in it.  That’s my fee per job.  It’s an ironic statement because I didn’t set the rate, Mica did.  Also because I didn’t choose the job.  I was never given a choice.  Mica’s guy saved my life that night in the city and the price has been my indentured servitude.

I’ve always believed that I would have to die to escape her grasp.  I’ve never heard of anyone that retired, so I’m more than a little surprised to find the second envelope contains just over ten thousand dollars.  Ten thousand one hundred seventy eight dollars to be exact.  A retirement payout from a job I thought I’d have to die to leave.  I’m over the moon.

I stop at the florist on the way home and grab a dozen roses and baby’s breath in a glass vase for Elle.  Then I call and make reservations at our favorite french bistro for dinner.  At home I clean the house to perfection, even dusting the vertical blinds and scrubbing the outside of the fridge with Windex.

I strip our bed and remake it with our “special” sheets, then set candles up around the room.  I put on nice clothes.  Ones with color in them and make Elle and I cocktails in our fancy glassware.

She walks in the door at eight p.m. with a sour look on her face.  I’m on the sofa watching the news on a comedy station.  I hop up and grab her by both hands.  She sighs and wiggles a bit to try and escape, but I hold on tight.  I crouch a bit to get eye level with her and flash her a big grin.

“What’s wrong with you grumpy pants?” I say playfully.

She sighs and pulls her hands out of mine.

“Nothing, just a rough day at work,” she says.

I turn and grab the flowers from the table next to us and hold them out to her.

“Maybe these will help,” I say.

She looks at them, then looks back at me with raised eyebrows.

“What did you do?” she asks.

I feign being wounded.

“What, a guy can’t buy his sexy wife flowers without being accused of committing some atrocity?”

She takes the flowers and inspects them.

“These are beautiful,” she says. “So beautiful in fact that if I had to guess, I’d say they cost at least a hundred bucks.  So I’ll ask again Mal, what did you do?”

I look at her and grin.  She sets the flowers down.

“Oh boy,” she sighs.

I dash to the kitchen and return with our drinks.  I hold hers out to her.

“So I’m going to need a drink for this?”

I smile and she takes the glass.

“Yes,” I say.  “For a toast.”

“And to what are we toasting?”

My smile widens and I hold up my glass.

“I quit my job today.”

Elle sets her drink down hard on the table.

“You did what?”

I nod my head.

“Yup, I went in and said that the job was interfering with our time together.  That we were talking about starting a family and that I didn’t see anyway to make both work, so I wanted to leave.”

Well, ya know, close enough.

Elle stares at me dumbfounded for a moment, then a smile starts to spread across her face.

“For real?” she says.

“For real for real,” I say.

Now she’s laughing.  I hold up my glass and she retrieves hers.  We clink them together.

“To a fresh start?” I say.

“To a family,” she says.

We sip our drinks and she throws her arms around me.  We kiss.  Hard, like we did when we were dating.  I’m holding her face and her arms are around my waist.  She goes for my belt buckle and I grab her hands.

“We have dinner reservations,” I say.

“Honey, the only thing I want for dinner tonight is you.”

I look in her eyes and slowly let go of her hand.  We hold eye contact and she undoes my belt and button and fly.  She takes me out of my pants and kisses my mouth while she strokes me.  When I’m hard she gets on her knees and takes me in her mouth.

I close my eyes and run my fingers through her hair, savoring every minute sensation.  I relish her tongue and lips and cheeks.  I shiver when I touch the back of her throat.

I pull her up and kiss her mouth.  My hands run down her neck and back and around her ass.  I reach down and pull her pencil skirt up around her waist.  I run my fingers down her bare thighs to the tops of her stockings, then back up the insides to her damp panties.  I push them aside without taking them off and lift her up on the table.

I stop kissing her and lift her chin with my fingers.  I gaze into her deep hazel nut eyes.  I tell her I love her.  I whisper I need her, then slowly as our breath gets shallow I push myself inside her.  She lets out a long, low moan and I pull her close and kiss her again.

We make love on the table, in the bed and again, clumsily, in the shower.  When we’re done at last we lay sprawled out naked on the sofa.  My fingers trace heart shapes on her bare tummy.

“We missed dinner,” I tell her.

“Yeah, we did,” she says.  “But we had lots of dessert.”

I smile at the corny joke.

“Are you hungry?” I ask.

“No,” she says, “but I could use a cigarette.”

We both used to smoke, but quit when we started talking about getting pregnant.  We still keep a small box though, for special occasions.

“Well, I’ll take that as a compliment,” I say.

“Take a walk with me?” she asks.

“Gladly,” I say.

We grab the box of Camels and the lighter from the drawer in the bedroom, throw on some sweats and head out the back to walk around the pond and smoke.

“So, what was rough at work today?” I ask.

“Oh, it’s just frustrating.  We had a witness for this case die.  He was killed actually.  It looks like the suspects had it done and it means we may have to drop the charges.”

“Wow,” I say surprised.  “I didn’t think things like that happened out here in the burbs.”

She chuckles.

“Thankfully they don’t really.  He was in the city last night and it looks like the suspects’ gang took him out.”

I stop walking.

“Last night?” I say.

“Yeah,” she says. “He was out there tutoring some kids on the south side and got jumped on the way back to his car.  Stabbed and shot in the head.”

I feel my throat close up and I start sweating.

“What was the case?” I ask.

“Sad one,” she says.  “Young woman, a wife and mother.  She was beaten pretty badly in a home invasion.  Police think it was a robbery gone bad.  Husband comes home in the middle of it and manages to chase the guys off, but the woman is in a coma in critical condition.  Husband was able to pick two of the guys out in a photo lineup though.  He was set to testify, but now we’re back to having nothing.”

I feel tears forming in the corners of my eyes.  I choke on my words.

“I think I- uh- I think I read about that one.  What’s her name again?”

My wife looks at me with sweet concern.

“Yeah, you might have.  It was in the papers a lot about a month ago.  Girl’s name was Kelly Phillips.”

My world comes crashing down around me.  I picture the man lying on the wet pavement.  I see his terrified eyes light up when I mention her name.  I feel myself pull back the trigger and smell the acrid sulfur scent of the gunfire mixing with the copper odor of the blood as it pools on the ground.  I bend over and throw up on my shoes.

“Oh my God, honey are you-”

There’s a clap of thunder and the sudden roar of rain, but the skies are clear and dry.  I look up and see red.  My nausea turns to panic and my eyes go wide as saucers.  Elle turns, following my gaze and we stare together as our apartment building is consumed in flames.

 

Chapter 7

Elle screamed for a little, cried a bit longer and now she’s sleeping in the grass with her head in my lap. The fire burned for two hours while the fire department doused it with hoses and carried people out in huge plastic masks that made them look like oversized insects. Now it just steamed in the moonlight as the last of the engines turns off its spinning red lights and quietly rolls away from the carnage.

As far as I can tell no one died. Everyone lost everything, but no one lost their life. I find some consolation in that, even if it’s only that it means the investigation will be less thorough. The police and fire marshal are still going through the wreckage with long heavy flashlights that throw harsh narrow beams of impossibly white light. Many of the residents have been taken to the hospital for examination, many others have already left for hotels or to stay with family or friends.

I’ve been letting Elle get some sleep, but it’s getting late and I think it’s time to get going.
I shake her gently and brush the hair from her eyes. She opens them slowly, getting her bearings and remembering where she is.

“Fuck,” she says.

“Yeah, it’s for real,” I answer.

We get up and I walk her to my car. I put her in the passenger seat and grab the spare key from the magnetic box under the rear wheel well. As I walk around to the driver’s side I notice a tired looking man in a cheap wrinkled suit approaching me from the building. I stop at the driver’s door and watch as he walks up.

“You folks takin’ off?” he asks before he reaches me.

I nod a tired answer and gesture towards the car.

“I gotta get my wife to bed. She’s pretty shaken up,” I say.

“Sure sure,” he says agreeably. “I’m Detective Upton by the way.”

He puts out his hand for me to shake. I take it and oblige.

“Malcolm,” I say. “Malcolm Karma.”

“Karma?” he says surprised. “Any relation to-”

“A.D.A. Elle Karma, yeah. She’s my wife.”

He nods and smiles.

“Well, very nice to meet you Malcolm.”

“Likewise,” I say in my most exhausted tone.

He smiles, gives me a once over, then sighs and gives a little shrug.

“Well, I won’t keep you Malcolm, we are just trying to get a record of where everyone will be for the next day or so in case we have to get a hold of you for any reason.”

I nod understandingly.

“Right. Uh, we’ll be at the motor lodge on Roosevelt Rd.”

He scratches the information in a small squarish black notebook then looks up a little confused.

“The motel you mean?”

“Yeah.”

“I’m sorry, I don’t really have a polite way of asking this, so I’m just going to say it. Why?”

“Well,” I say with a slight edge of condescension. “I guess mostly because my apartment building is- well, was just on fire.”

He looks up from his notebook.

“Right,” he says. “ But why some fleabag motel? There’s like a dozen decent hotels within five miles of this place.”

“Their sign says they have color TV,” I say.

He doesn’t seem to think this is funny.

“Look Detective, I don’t want to be rude or difficult, but I just don’t see how the place we stay in is, frankly, any of your business, and I really have to get my wife to bed, so unless there’s something else…”

He looks at me trying to mask his annoyance. Clearly he’s not used to people talking to him this way, but after a moment he shakes it off and smiles back at me.

“Of course, I’m very sorry. I was just curious. Call it a professional habit. It doesn’t matter at all. Just one more quick thing then. I just need your apartment number so we can make sure any personal items that may have survived are returned to you.”

I look past him at the charred remains of our building and try to imagine a scenario where anything in the whole place survived intact. I look back at him and rub my eyes with my palms in exhaustion.

“Uh, 206,” I say. “It’s around back.”

“Got it,” he says. “Thanks so much Mr. Karma. We’ll be in touch if we find anything out.”

“Great,” I say.

I climb into the driver’s seat of my car and turn the engine over until it screams like a jungle cat on fire. I drop the gearbox into second, feed it gas and pop the clutch. I let the tires squeal before gunning it out of the parking lot. It’s true what I said about the motor lodge. They do have color TV, but that’s not why we’re staying there. Someone just burnt down my home and no part of me thinks it was an accident.

I quit my job with Mica Kole and despite her kind words and the lump of cash that I, thankfully, left in the car this afternoon, I know that this was at best a warning. More likely it was intended to be my real retirement package. With any luck Human Resources thinks they did their job and isn’t looking any further, but I’m certainly not going to risk running my credit card at the fucking Holiday Inn. A cash room at an unlisted motel is what this night calls for. I need to get Elle some sleep and help her calm down. Tomorrow I’ll start figuring what comes next.

I have to deal with the fire, but also I have to look into the Kelly Phillips situation. Both of these mean dealing with Mica and now that’s going to be much much more complicated.

 

Chapter 8

At six a.m. I climb out of bet without having slept. Elle is still comatose and I figure I’ll let her sleep as long as I can. I put on my slacks and slide my bare feet into my loafers. I stretch my white undershirt on over my chest and head outside.

The morning sun hangs low over the city due east down Roosevelt Rd. Traffic on the road is light, but steady. The square parking lot that sits in the center of the U shaped motel however, is silent. I stretch and yawn in the morning sun and walk across the gravely parking lot to the manager’s office to get some coffee.

The office itself is old and musty. It looks as though the last time it was renovated was 1973. Long gold shag carpet is wearing thin in the high traffic areas and the formerly clear glass coffee pitchers are now only a shade or two lighter than their contents. Next to the coffee post is a stack of small white Styrofoam cups and a couple of crusty bowls of sugar and powdered creamer.
I fill a cup with coffee barely dark enough to eschew the bottom of the cup and gulp it down. It’s weak and slightly bitter as though it’s been sitting in the pot for days, but I refill it and head back across the lot.

In my absence a couple of ladies have set up a small breakfast table in front of the room next to mine. They look young, late twenties or early thirties, but they are wearing old flannel night gowns that look like they might have been stolen from my grandmother’s closet. They have a rickety TV dinner stand between them and they’re sitting on collapsible card table chairs. There’s a tall thermos steaming into the crisp morning air on the table and two small paper plates holding toaster waffles and plastic silverware. They smile warmly at me as I approach.

“Good morning handsome,” one of them says in a thick and friendly Texan accent.

I smile back at the sound of her voice.

“Good morning ladies,” I say.

“You move in last night?” the other one says in a slightly subtler accent of the same origin.

I glance at my door.

“Move in?” I question. “God, I hope not, but yeah, got in last night. My apartment burned down so I needed a quick place to stay.”

“Oh shit! That’s what all that commotion was? I’m so sorry. Do they know what caused it?” the first one says.

“Not yet,” I answer. “Still investigating.

“Well, welcome to the off ramp to hell,” she goes on. “Satan doesn’t actually live here, but his place is walking distance.”

I laugh.

“I’m Erica,” she says. “This is my-”

She tilts her head a bit as if inspecting me, trying to determine what kind of man I am.

“My friend, Robin.”

I smile and nod that I understand.

“It’s very nice to meet you ladies.”

“The pleasure is undoubtedly all ours,” Robin says. “Now, why don’t you dump out that swill they pass off as coffee in there and pour yourself a real cup of joe.”

I raise my eyebrows and turn my cup over. Erica refills it with coffee from their thermos. It smells rich and nutty and has a deep mahogany color that color that seems incongruous with the cheap cup it’s swirling in. I take a long sip and sigh with contented satisfaction.

“That is good coffee,” I say.

Robin smiles.

“Only the best here,” she says with a twinge of irony.

“So, how long have you ladies been here at the Ritz?”

They look at each other and say in unison, “About three months.”

I choke a bit on my coffee.

“Three months? In this place?”

Erica laughs and nods her head.

“It’s actually not that bad. It has a kind of low rent romance to it.”

I look around the run down lot at the rows of brown steel doors wedged unevenly between the off white paint chipping off the cinder block walls. I suppose I can see what she’s saying.

“So, what brings you ladies up here?” I ask presumptuously.

Robin smiles, leans back in her chair and crosses her legs.

“Well, we’re bounty hunters of a sort,” she says with a glib satisfaction that gives me the impression that this usually knocks people right over. I have to admit, it does take me by surprise.

“Really?” I say with just the right amount of awe.

“That’s right,” Erica says, letting her accent sink back into place.

“So, you’re way up here chasin’ bail jumpers?”

“Well, we’re not so much that kind of bounty hunter,” Robin says. “We don’t do bail bond stuff no more.”

“Well, we would,” Erica cuts in, “but it doesn’t pay what it’s worth.”

“Exactly,” Robin agrees. “Plus, despite what they show in TV, it’s actually pretty boring. We like a bit more excitement.”

“Sure do,” Erica agrees with a gleam in her eye.

“That’s fascinating,” I say. “So what kind of bounty do you hunt then?”

“Well, right now we’re contracting with a private organization. I guess you might say we’re acting as debt collectors,” Erica explains.

“I see.”

The door to my room opens and Elle steps out looking like she’s just gone ten rounds. I smile at her and giver her a wave.

“Good morning sunshine,” I say. “You look like you could use a cup of coffee.”

I walk over and put my cup in her hands.

“I was just talking with our neighbors. Ladies, this is my wife Elle. Sweetheart, this is Robin and Erica. They are fascinating women and Robin makes a fantastic cup of coffee.”

“Very nice to meet you,” Elle manages.

“We make a few more pleasantries and refill our coffee from Robin’s thermos, then we excuse ourselves to our room for Elle to get cleaned up.

“Obviously I’m not going into work today,” she says.

“I figured as much,” I say. “But we’re gonna need some stuff. Everything was in the apartment.”

I hand her the envelope that has the nine hundred in it.

“Go get some clothes, some supplies, and some food. Use my car. I’ll get a cab and go to the dealership to get new keys for your car made and stop at the insurance agent to file a claim.”

She agrees. We clean up and she heads out for her chores. I use the phone in the room to call a cab. I do need to take care of the items I listed to Elle, but first I need supplies too, and the first item on that list is a gun.

 

 

Chapter 9

The city is really two very different places. To the north lie the gleaming towers of glass and ivory colored concrete. To the south are rows of hollowed out shells where people live like colonies of roaches.

Crime exists in both places, but in the south it is unapologetic. Theft, intimidation, and assault occur in broad daylight without the fear of interference by the police. Citizens skitter about doing their best not to notice what is happening around them, or at least not to let anyone know they’ve noticed. Living in a place like this is hard. You have to keep your head down and do your very wbest not to stand out.

On the other hand, those very things make this the best place to come when you have errands like mine. The cab drops me off six blocks from where I want to be, but it doesn’t surprise me that he won’t go any further. I pay the fare and give the driver a nice tip for getting me as far as he did.

I left most of the money from my retirement package in the envelope back at the motel, still, I brought enough to take care of what I have to take care of and that means that I’m walking six blocks through the dust backstreets of the South Side in a seven hundred dollar suit with a grand in my breast pocket and no gun.

I’m walking east on 63rd street, watching the neighborhood deteriorate around me like a time lapse of the Armageddon. Folks on the street, sidewalks and porches stare at me. Some shout behavioral instructions that are suggestive of self love or impending violence. I finally reach my destination.

Southerby’s Law Office is a piecemeal brick and cinder block box with a few passing attempts at architectural flourish that do little to distinguish it from, say, an Afghan prison. It stands alone on an empty block, a bare dirt parking lot to it’s left and long unkempt shaggy green grass to the right. The second floor has a large picture window cutout that’s been sealed up with four narrow mismatched windows. The first floor has two doors that appear to be competing for the title of ‘last door you’d ever want to step though’. I smile to myself because I know it doesn’t matter which door you choose. They both lead to the same stripped out, bare beams, square room that serves as the law office of Adam Pilsen.

Adam is a private lawyer that provides legal services at little to no cost for the disenfranchised poor of the city. He named his practice Southerby’s to make it sound more elite in court. He’s good, very good in fact, and he wins a lot. Partly because he knows the law cold and knows how to work the system, but mostly because he has a reputation. A reputation for helping innocent people.

Most defense attorneys, especially those on this side of town, have a rule about not asking their clients if they’re guilty or not. Adam not only asks, he investigates, and he investigates hard. If you show up in court with Adam Pilsen as your council it’s because he believes you’re innocent, and if he believes it then chances are good the court will too.
The stories say that when Adam shows up for a meeting with the D.A., the D.A. rethinks the charges. More often than not charges are dropped or drastically reduced before any of his cases make it in front of a jury.

There are other stories too. Whispered ones. Low voices in the front seats of cars parked in empty lots late at night. Those stories say that Adam plays both sides. If you’re innocent he’ll get you off, but if you’re guilty, you’re better off taking a plea because if you walk, Adam will help make sure you get what’s coming to you.

They say that Adam got started in the law when a vigilante named Gavin Gayle bailed him out of a tough spot. After that Adam became a lawyer to help the innocent, but continued to use his previous underworld contacts to provide information and weapons to Gavin.

That was twenty years ago though, and Gavin Gayle is just and old urban legend. Mica Kole is the Angel of Death for baddies in this city now and Adam Pilsen is a straight laced upstanding lawyer that I just happen to know can get me a gun.

I cross the street and approach the building. There are three tough guys in their late teens or early twenties loitering outside. They see me walking over and take notice. The oldest one stands up and meets me at the curb.

“Keep walking Ringo,” he says.

I raise my eyebrows and put my hands in my pockets to make myself less threatening.

“It’s okay buddy,” I say. “I’m here to see Adam. I’m an old friend.”

That’s probably pushing it. I’m not really anyone’s friend, and I’m sure Adam Pilsen wouldn’t classify me that way if he was asked. Truth is, I’m just hoping that he’s more committed to justice than he is to Mica and that he gives me enough time to explain the difference before he has these kids turn me inside out.

“You don’t look like no one’s friend,” one of the teenagers says.

“Actually, you look like a cop,” the other one adds.

I chuckle a bit.

“How is that funny?” the leader says taking a step forward and puffing up his chest.

“Look kids, I-”

I take a right hook to my jaw and it drops me to one knee. The little ones jump on me throwing punches to my ribs, kidneys and liver. They’re persistent but weak and as soon as I shake off the ringing in my head from the sucker punch I grab one of them by the hand and give a quick twist. I can hear his wrist break and he rolls off me screaming and crying.

The other one jumps off me and scuttles back a dozen feet or so. I take a quick step in his direction and he jumps back further.

I turn back towards the leader of the trio and say again, “I’m here to see Adam.”

I wipe my cheek where he hit me and see blood soak into the cuff of my white shirt.
The kid comes at me fast and sloppy. I step back and grab him by his right wrist with both hands. I two step around him and pull his arm up behind his back. I give it a jerk and fee the ball joint pull out of his shoulder socket, a trick Mica taught me when I first started working for her. I press my right hand hard on the injury and he drops to his knees with a scream.

“Thanks fella,” I say.

The two wounded men roll on the dirty asphalt street moaning and grabbing at their injuries. The third dis is running away from the scene as fast as his overpriced sneakers will let him. I leave the two delinquents on the street and walk through the door on the right.

Adam Pilsen looks surprised to see me. Surprised may be an understatement. He looks like he’s seeing a ghost. He recovers quickly and give me a plastic smile that morphs into something more genuine.

“Mal, what a surprise,” he says honestly.

“I’m sure,” I say.

“I just mean, Mica didn’t say you were coming by today.”

I laugh.

“I imagine Mica said I wouldn’t be by at all anymore.”

“I don’t follow,” he says.

“I’m retired.”

Adam just about chokes on a sip of coffee.

“Retired? Wow, well good for you.”

“Yeah, sure. Mica was very gracious about it until she had my apartment building burned down.”

Adam’s face goes flush for a moment. This whole visit is clearly rattling him a bit.

“Have you talked to her lately?” I ask.

“A little bit this morning,” he says.

I nod and look around his room casually. I begin wandering around aimlessly.

“She didn’t say anything about me?” I ask.

He shakes his head.

“No, not that I recall.”

“Adam,” I say with a condescending tone. “You’re a lawyer, you don’t forget things.”

He shrugs like he’s looking for words.

“I’ll get down to it,” I say. “I asked Mica to get out. She said it was no big deal. She gave me a retirement payment and said to enjoy myself, then I go home and someone sets fire to my place and burns it to the ground.”

“Mal,” he’s trying to sound professional now. “I’m sorry for your loss, but I couldn’t sell that in court. That’s a coincidence. I don’t see anything suggesting that it was Mica that set the fire.”

I lilt my head and give him a glare.

“I also found out last night that the job I did the night before, my last job, it was a mistake. The client wasn’t the right person. In fact, he was the witness. He was due to testify in court yesterday.”

He frowns and I can’t tell if it’s a put on or if he’s genuinely surprised.

“Here’s my problem,” I say. “I’ve known Mica a long time,”

Adam nods.

“Me too Mal.”

“I know, and what I’m saying is that she doesn’t make mistakes. I’ve never known her to fuck something up. She’s-”

“Meticulous,” Adam finishes.

I give a melancholy smile.

“Meticulous. That’s right. She’s meticulous.”

“So, you’re saying-”

“So I’m saying that, if you can spare one, I could really use a gun.”

Adam stares at me for a long moment. He’s thinking about what I’ve said and about what I’ve asked. He’s trying to decide. He’s playing a fast game of truth or consequences with himself. I stare back silently. There’s nothing more for me to add. He understands what I’m asking and he understands why. I can’t tell if he believes it, but I’m pretty sure he knows that I do.

He walks away from his desk and kneels down next to a tall stack of overstuffed file folders on the floor. He pushes them aside a couple feet and lifts a section of floor boards. It crosses my mind that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. When he returns to his desk he has an oily looking black handgun with a slide and a barrel like a large-mouth bass.

“It’s a .45,” he says. “I don’t have ammo, you’ll have to get that someplace else.”

I nod in understanding.

“Don’t come back here,” he says in a voice heavy with intent.

“I won’t,” I assure him. “Maybe don’t mention that I was here,” I counter.

“I most assuredly won’t,” he says.

“You’re gonna need new thugs out front,” I say as an afterthought while I’m walking to the door.

Adam chuckles.

“Those fuckers don’t work for me,” he says. “They only think they do.”

I grab the door and swing it open.

“Mal!” Adam calls as I’m stepping out.

I turn and look him in the eyes.

“You’re living up to your name,” he says without a hint of humor.

I give a knowing nod.

“Watch yourself,” he says. This shit is bad karma.”

I leave his door open as I cross the deserted street and head back to civilization.

 

 

Chapter 10

Once I’m out of the city’s demilitarized zone I start looking for some place to get new clothes. I’m still wearing my digs from the night before and they are wrinkled and smell like a house fire. I need something clean and a little formal because my next stop is the restaurant to see Mica.
I find a thrift store buried inside the first neighborhood I pass through. I’m able to put together some dark blue jeans with a black collared shirt and a herringbone tweed jacket with black suede patches on the elbows. I pay the girl at the counter in cash and change in the store’s dressing rooms. Afterwards I buy a used brown leather satchel style briefcase and stuff the dirty clothes inside.

Back towards the highway I find a gun shop and purchase a blue and white box of .45 rounds and a shoulder holster that will fit the gun that’s currently tucked in my waistband. Outside I put on the holster under my jacket, load the pistol, and stuff the rest of the ammo in the briefcase. 40 minutes later I’m stepping out of the back of a black Lincoln Town Car in front of Mica Scotti Sushi. I smile, she doesn’t cook her fish, just her employees.

I walk in and make eye contact with the hostess. She smiles, un-alarmed to see me, and I walk past her into the dining room farthest from Mica’s office. I saunter up to the empty bar and find a seat.

“Morning partner,” the slim brunette bartender says casually as she empties a rack of glassware onto the shelves behind the bar.

“Too early for a drink?” I ask.

“No such thing my friend.”

I smile.

“Great,” I sigh. “Gin and tonic please. Double poor, Seagrams, with 2 lime wedges.”

“A man who knows what he wants,” she answers.

“I’m getting there, slowly,” I say.

“I’m Sarah,” she offers.

“Nice to meet you Sarah,” I say. “I’m Malcolm.”

“Yes, you are,” she says.

She looks over for a moment, past the entrance, then back at her work. I resist the urge to glance over and see what she’s looking at. She sets the drink down in front of me just as a looming presence appears at the stool to my left.

“On the house,” Sarah says and disappears through a set of saloon doors to the back room.
I feel a heavy hand on my shoulder and the deep gravely voice of a Teddy Bear with teeth says my name.

I don’t look up, but sip my drink and say, “Don.”

The hand on my shoulder gives an unsubtle squeeze.

“What are you doing here Mal?”

I take another sip, swallow and give a refreshed sigh.

“I’m having a drink. Can I get you one?”

“Malcolm-”

“Oh, or did you mean what am I doing here, like on this plane of existence? Like what am I doing alive after you and your boss went through all that trouble to make me, well, not.”

Don uses the one hand on my shoulder to turn me 90 degrees on my stool so that I’m facing him. I reach for my drink, but he grabs it first and upends it on the bar. He sets the empty glass back on the surface next to me.

The hand on my shoulder gets a little tighter and I give an involuntary groan.

“You shouldn’t be here.”

“Well, I need to see Mica.”

“You know that isn’t going to happen,” he says with a slight tinge of sympathy in his voice.

“Actually,” I say. “I think I’m going to see her whether I want to or not.”

He frowns at me.

A cheerful but assertive voice breezes through the empty room.

“It’s okay Don, I’ve got this.”

We both look sideways and see Mica in a delicate cream colored sundress cut well above the knees pattering barefoot through the restaurant towards us.

Don looks at her with eyes that ask if she’s really sure about that. She wave him off casually. He glares at me and releases my shoulder before sulking away into the same back room that bartender Sarah disappeared into earlier.

Mica steps up to the bar and smiles a bright sunny smile that betrays no surprise or displeasure. She hops up on the stool next to me and crosses her legs, leaning casually on one elbow on the bar.

“How’s the drink?” she says with the friendly tone of a proprietor chatting with a customer.

“Free always tastes good.” I say.

She just stares at me with the same charming smile.

“It’s just well gin,” I say. “It’s fine for what it is.”

“You could have ordered better,” she says.

“I didn’t know that I wasn’t paying for it when I ordered. I’m on a fixed income at the moment.”

Her expression doesn’t change.

“What are you doing here Mal?”

I sigh.

“Well, I thought maybe we should have a little chat,” I say.

“I didn’t think we had anything left to say to each other,” she says.

“Ya know,” I say. “I didn’t either, but then I got homeless and thought maybe there were some things still to say.”

Finally she looks serious.

“What do you suppose that has to do with me?” she asks angrily.

“Well, that’s what I was hoping to find out.”

She sits up straight and crosses her legs the other way.

“Mal, you shouldn’t be here.”

“What’s going on Mica? Why don’t I have a place to live? And what’s the deal with the Phillips case? The guy didn’t do anything, he was the witness for Christ’s sake. Since when do we client witnesses? When did we stop being the good guys?”

Mica’s face goes pale and earnest.

“Mal, you need to go. You need to leave, go home and never ever come back here. I gave you your out. I did my level best for you, but we’re done now. There is nothing else I can do for you. Go home. Go NOW!”

“Jesus Mica,” I shout. “You aren’t listening. I don’t have a fucking home. You fucking burnt it down. What the hell happened? I know we weren’t good, but at least I thought we were on the good side. Or was it all a lie? We’re we ever trying to do what’s right?”

Mica is calm, even tempered, but stern and resolute.

“Malcom, there is no ‘we’. There is just you, and this is me telling you to get out of this restaurant now and go far away. Far away and never come back.”

We stare at each other for a long moment, then I feel that familiar hand on my shoulder.
I stand up.

“You had your shot Mica,” I say. “You fucked it up and now I know you’re coming. You won’t get another chance. If I were you I’d think about letting it go.”

“Funny,” she says. “That’s exactly what I was going to say to you. Let it go Mal, just fucking let it go.”

 

 

Chapter 11

I finish the rest of my chores, filing the insurance claim on our burnt down apartment and contacting our bank and credit card companies to get replacement cards. I stop by the BMW dealership to order a new set of keys for Elle’s car, then, before I go back to the motel I swing by the old apartment.

The place looks like it belongs on the same block as Adam Pilsen’s law office. It’s charred and hollowed out and the ash is a greyish mud, mixed with the water from the fire department’s hoses. I sit there on the curb in front of the building for a good half hour taking it all in. Part of me just wants to see how it makes me feel to look at the carnage, but most of me is just waiting to see if there are any cops or fire investigators lurking around. After half an hour of waiting I decide it’s clear and head in.

I step through the empty hole that was the building’s front door and make my way down the devastated hallway to the back of the building where our apartment was. The steel door is still standing, but the frame stands alone, unsupported by adjacent walls. I walk around it and stand for a moment in what was our living/dining room. The damage here seems even more intense. Any surface that remains is the most intense black and any trace of furniture has been reduced to soft ashen mud.

Past the kitchen I find the place in the wall that had held my safe. The wall and all it’s supports are gone and the safe is lying face down in a pile of rubble and debris. It’s heavy, but I manage to upright it and dial in the combination. The front pops open effortlessly and I find the contents to be more or less undisturbed.

I load the guns, knives and straight razor into my new briefcase along with a stack of cash wrapped in saran wrap and a small stack of various kinds of identification with my photo but different names. There’s a ring of 6 keys that I pocket in my jeans and a thick yellow paper envelope stuffed with color photographs that I tuck away in my jacket breast pocket.
I close the safe and tip it back over dusting the top with some of the surrounding debris to make it appear as it had when I arrived.

I backtrack out of the building the way I came in and pull my phone out to order an Uber to pick me up. As I step out onto the black tar asphalt parking lot I hear my name. Startled, I turn around and see Detective Upton walking towards me wearing the same suit he had on last night, and not looking like he has slept a wink since either.

“It is Malcolm right? Elle Karma’s husband?”

I smile and try to force the surprise off my face.

“Oh, hi. Yeah, it’s Malcolm, but ya know, Mal is fine. My friends call me Mal.”

He smiles at me with piercing eyes that feel to me as though they are seeing inside me without my permission.

“I’m surprised to see you here Malcolm.”

I rub the back of my neck with my left hand and feel my right arm involuntarily tighten around my briefcase on my right side.

“Why’s that?” I ask.

He looks around with a sardonic expression.

“Well Malcolm,” he says. “because no one else is here. The place is a dangerous disaster zone,and also a crime scene. I’d be surprised to see anyone here.”

“Ah, well, yeah. I suppose,” I concede. “I guess I just wanted to see it in the daylight. See how bad it really is.”

“Oh,” Upton says sounding a little disappointed. “I guess I figured you were here to clean out your safe.”

My heart stops.

“I’m sorry?”

“The safe in your apartment. I noticed you had a pretty substantial safe in your unit. I figured you must have some seriously important stuff in there. I know I’d want to get it out right away if it were me.”

“Oh, that,” I say without breathing. “Nah, nothing in it.”

Upton raises his eyebrows.

“Nothing in it? Nothing at all?”

“Nope, put it in hoping there would be someday, but haven’t gotten there yet.”

Now he looks really confused.

“You built an expensive safe into the wall of an apartment that you signed a 1 year lease on just in case you ever had anything to put in it…someday?”

I feel myself getting squeamish. Time to get out of this conversation.

“I was supposed to come into some money this year, but it ended up not happening. What are you doing here Detective Upton.”

He nods and smiles.

“Investigating Mr. Karma. Always investigating.”

“And have you found anything?” I ask.

He nods.

“I have,” he says.

There’s a long silence as we stare at each other.

“And…” I suggest.

“I’m not really at liberty to say yet,” he says. “It was good to see you Malcolm. I’ll be in touch if anything comes up.”

He turns and walks away across the parking lot just as my black Ford Flex pulls up. I climb in the back seat and breathe for the first time in 10 minutes.

 

 

Chapter 12

The sun is drowning in a bloody pool of sky when my cab rolls into the motel parking lot. Elle is sitting in an aluminum lawn chair next to Robin and Erica. They are smiling and laughing and Elle has some kind of red frozen drink in her hand.

I smile, glad that she’s been able to take her mind off of things for a bit, able to find a moment of levity. My mind has been racing all day, juggling thoughts of Mica and Detective Upton and Adam Pilsen.

If Mica wanted me dead, why the continued charade at the restaurant? Why tell me to leave town, to run essentially? Why not just have Don snap my neck at the bar and toss me out back with yesterday’s fry oil. And was Upton suggesting not so subtly that he thought I had something to do with the fire? How could he have that already? What would lead him to that conclusion? The safe? I admit, I can see how a safe like mine in an apartment like that could look suspicious, but I hardly think it would be the most suspicious thing going on in the whole damn building. Then there’s Adam Pilsen. The man was clearly surprised to see me, unpleasantly surprised at that, but he still went out on a limb to help me out. He could have just as easily had me carried out in half a dozen separate pieces, so why was he so ready to give me what I asked for? I’m generally not one to do a lot of extra unrequired thinking, but something is each of these encounters smells not unlike day old sushi.

I pay the cab in cash and walk over to the trio of ladies lounging outside my room. Elle looks at me with a wide warm smile and glassy eyes that tell me this isn’t her first cocktail.

“How are you ladies tonight?” I ask in a overly friendly tone.

“We are just fine as Tahiti sand,” Erica says.

“And your wife is sweet as my grand mama’s peach cobbler,” Robin adds.

Elle’s focus seems to swim past me, then rocks back and her gaze meets my eyes.

“Mal, these girls are so much fun.”

I smile.

“I may just leave you and run away with them,” she teases.

I raise my eyebrows.

“Is that so?” I say glancing at Elle’s new friends.

Robin give me a devilish wink and Erica looks Elle up and down slowly with a naughty smile.

“Well, I see how it is,” I say playfully.

Erica laughs.

“Sweet as peaches she may be, but I think my hands are full enough with just this little lady. I can’t imagine toting 2 of you broads around.”

Elle puts on a wounded pout and stands herself up. She stumbles forward a few steps and falls into my arms.

“Well Mal,” she says. “I guess my sweet peach is all yours.”

She giggles in a way I haven’t heard in years and whispers in my ear before straightening herself up and walking back to our room with a sway in her hips that has both of the ladies leaning over to watch her go.

I smile at them when she’s back in the room.

“Thanks for keeping her company,” I say. “It’s been a rough day.”

“It was our pleasure,” says Robin.

“Go get some before you’re stuck holding her hair.” Erica adds.

I smile again and turn towards our room. As I’m walking away Erica says, “Sleep safe Mal.”

 

Chapter 13

Elle rolls off of me slick with sweat and various other natural fluids. She sprawls out across the cheap motel sheets and labors to catch her breath, giggling every so often as if what we’ve just done was funny in some way. Like we’ve gotten away with something. I stand up and walk to the bathroom to get a drink of water and throw her a towel.

She wipes her face off, then stuffs the towel between her legs and rolls over on her stomach to face me. I bend over and take a long drink right from the faucet, then stand up and fill a glass and turn back to look at my wife. I lean against the door frame and stare at her, lit in a honey red glow from the end table lamp on her side of the bed. She grins at me in a satisfied tone.

“What did YOU do today?” she says playfully.

I laugh out loud and cross my arms.

“You mean besides potentially impregnate my wife?” I say.

“I know, right!?” she almost shouts.

“Shhh,” I caution. “It’s late and the walls here aren’t exactly soundproof, or, ya know, sound resistant.”

She laughs and rolls over on her back throwing her arms wide and mocks shouting, “Hey Erica, Robin, everyone, Malcolm put a baby in me.”

“You’re very funny,” I say.

“But seriously babe,” she says sternly all of a sudden. “We can’t do that again. You need to wear something. We can’t have a baby, we don’t even have a place to live.”

I roll my eyes.

“This is hardly permanent,” I say.

“Yeah, all the same, I was thinking it might not be a bad idea to give Mica a call and see if you can stay on a bit longer. Ya know, just until-”

“Absolutely not,” I almost shout. “Out of the question.”

“Mal-”

“No!” I straighten up and take a step towards the bed. “It’s not even an option, and besides, we don’t need it. Insurance is taking care of lost assets, car insurance is replacing car keys, and we’ll have a new apartment in no time. Hey, maybe we could even buy a place. A house maybe.”

She hops up on her knees and gives me a disapproving stare.

“We could move.”

“Where?” she says.

“Um, how about Rockford,” I offer. “Houses are cheap there, and from what I hear, they could really use a good prosecutor.”

“Very funny,” she says cracking a smile.

“I have my moments,” I say with a grin. “But in all seriousness Elle, maybe a move could be a good thing. Maybe this fire, ya know, right after I quit my job, maybe it’s a message telling us it’s time to move on.”

She looks at me questioningly for a long moment, then drops her shoulders with a sigh and. She smiles at me then shakes her head wildly, letting her gorgeous brunette hair flail about like it’s trying to leave the planet. She lets out a long loud guttural moan then throws herself backwards onto the bed.

“Whatever! We can talk about it later. For now, come back here and do that thing to me again.”

I stare at her madness and laugh.

“Which one?” I say.

“Duh,” She says. “All of them.”

 

 

Chapter 14

When I wake up someone is knocking on the door to our room. I sit up slowly and chug the rest of the water in the glass next to the bed. The knocking continues, 3 taps at a time followed by a pause; presumably waiting for a reply. They are light friendly knocks, but they are persistent and at this hour, unwelcome.

Speaking of the hour, I wonder at the time and check my watch on the nightstand. 8:45am.

“Shit,” I think. It’s later than I thought. I glance around the room and see that Elle has already left.
I stand up, pull on some pants commando style and answer the door sans shirt. There are 2 gentlemen in front of me attempting to be well dressed. The first I already know, Detective Upton. The other man is taller, larger, and sporting a well kept if slightly graying beard. Upton smiles at my confused expression.

“Mr. Karma,” he says formally.

“Detective.” I say.

“This is Lt. Jeremy Rodden with the Fire Marshall’s Office of Arson Investigation. He and I were hoping you had a moment to talk.”

I glare skeptically at the two men, then open the door to its capacity and walk back to the bed to find a shirt.

I pull a white undershirt over my head and drop myself into the threadbare armchair in the corner of the room.

“What’s the word gentlemen?”

Inspector Rodden looks around the room uncomfortably like he’s not sure where to sit or stand. Ultimately he just stands a single pace inside the room and lets Upton do most of the talking.
“We’ve determined an origin and cause for the fire at your apartment building,” Detective Upton says.

“Well, that sounds like good news,” I say.

Upton nods. Rodden wrinkles his brow and crosses his arms.

“Good news, sure, but the thing is Malcolm, the origin was in your unit and the mechanism seems to have been an explosive device.”

I try to mimic genuine surprise.

“A device?” I say affecting confusion. “What does that mean?”

“It was a gasoline bomb,” Rodden chimes in flatly.

“What, like a Molotov cocktail?” I say.

Upton smiles and shakes his head.

“No, no not like that at all.”

My confused expression changes from an act to the real thing.

“Well, what then?”

“It was rather large,” Upton says as if he’s preparing me for unexpected bad news.

“At least 25 gallons,” Rodden clarifies.

“And it was on a remote detonator,” Upton says suggestively.

I shift in my seat and immediately regret it.

“Do you gentlemen think maybe you could stop dancing around the issue and just come out with it? Are you telling me that someone was trying to kill us? That they were targeting us specifically?”

Rodden steps forward and uncrosses his arms.

“Mr. Karma, your apartment building was destroyed when a 25 gallon gasoline bomb was detonated from inside your apartment unit. The bomb, which appears to have been located underneath your bed, was detonated via a cellular device wired into the mechanism. The time of the detonation has been able to be determined with a reliable level of specificity and accuracy due to numerous witnesses both inside the building and outside.”

Detective Upton takes a seat on the bed facing me. He leans in towards me and takes off his glasses.

“Malcolm,” he says in a low voice. “We ran your cell records and they show very clearly that you made a call to a pay as you go burner phone at the exact moment of the explosion.”
My jaw goes slack and small jewels of cold sweat dig their way out of my pores and onto the surface of my forehead.

“We were on a walk,” I say sounding a little too defensive. “At the time of the fire, we were on a walk outside. I didn’t even have my phone on me. It was in the apartment, it was destroyed in the fire.”

“No Mr. Karma,” Rodden says. “We have data showing that your phone was on and pinging off a cell tower less than half a mile from your apartment a full hour after the explosion.”
My mouth goes dry and I feel cold. I give a gradual slow nod of my head and stare at the floor.

“I see,” I say.

“Is there anything you’d like to add or amend?” Upon asks.

“I kind of think I need to talk to my wife,” I say.

Upton nods understandingly.

“Yeah, okay. Well you’ll get an opportunity to make that call,” he says. “But if I were you I’d take that time to call a lawyer. Have them contact your wife for you.”

“My wife is a lawyer,” I bark at him.

“I know Malcolm, but as I’m sure she’ll tell you, it’s better not to represent yourself, even if you are a lawyer.”

I look up into the detective’s eyes.

“You’re charging her too?”

“Her initial statement corroborated yours,” he says with a sympathetic tone. “So unless she’s willing to recant that and give a different picture of events we’ll have to assume she’s an accomplice.”

I get up and Upton jumps to his feet. Rodden steps back into the open door frame.

“Easy fellas,” I say.

“Mr. Karma, I’m going to have to ask you to turn around and place your hands on the back of your head.”

I look dumbfoundedly at Upton. He has his right hand on his holstered weapon and the other up and half reaching towards me in a defensive posture. Rodden has his gun drawn and is holding it with two hands, pointing at the floor in front of me. Slowly I raise my hands and put my palms on the back of my neck.

“Please turn around,” Upton says firmly.

I turn away from them and Upton ratchets one bracelet around my right wrist, then brings it down behind my back. He takes my left wrist and pulls it down to meet the other one and snaps the other cuff around it. He holds me by the chain between the cuffs and puts his other hand on my back between my shoulder blades and turns me towards the door.

“Malcolm Karma, you are under arrest for the crimes of Arson and attempted murder. You have the right to remain silent…”

 

 

Chapter 15

Surprisingly, I’ve never been to jail before. Unsurprisingly, it’s not as glamorous as it is on TV. At least not at a suburban county jail. There are 3 guys in my lockup besides me and 2 of them are still drunk.

I called Elle with my phone call. I wanted to make sure she was able to get out of the office before the cops showed up. I don’t imagine it would do her career a whole lot of good to be dragged out of the DA’s office in handcuffs. Thankfully I got to her in time.

She was able to get out of the office, call a lawyer for me and negotiate her own surrender before anyone showed up at work. After that I got a call from Ms. Allie Stanley, the lawyer Elle set me up with. I haven’t heard from Elle since then.

Allie spent a quick 15 minutes with me on the phone getting the jist of what went down, then told me she’d be over to see me as soon as she had a chance. She sounded young and energetic with a sarcastic wit that, surprisingly, put me at ease. The problem is, she’s not MY lawyer, she’s OUR lawyer, which means I’m limited in what I can share with her. I can’t tell her that it was Mica who had my apartment blown up, that she was trying to kill me because I left her mob of secret illegal enforcers. In short, I can’t tell her the truth.

I did tell her that bail was my priority. Since I can’t tell her what’s going on, I need to get out of here so I can figure out what’s going on.

“Malcolm Karma?”

The cold metallic voice of the guard echoed in the cinder block chamber making my eardrums sting.

I stand up and raise my hand like I’m in the third grade.

“Yeah, that’s me officer.”

“Pack your crap man, you’re outta here.”

“I’m what?” I ask confused and a little nervous.

“Outta here. Now!”

“Where am I going?” I ask.

“As if I give a fuck.” the officer says.

I barely have time to process before they hand me an envelope full of everything that had been in my pockets this morning and boot me out into the empty parking lot.

I walk out into the sun and look back at the building.

“What the fuck is going on?” I wonder out loud.

“I told you to fucking leave.”

I spin around like someone set me on fire. Behind me Mica is standing about a dozen or so feet away in a sharp navy blue skirt suit and red heels. I feel myself get dizzy and I look around for one or more of her goons, here to take me out.

I’m stunned partly because I’ve never seen Mica outside the city before. Hell, I’ve never seen her outside the restaurant before, but also and more so because I’ve never seen her DRESSED like this before. Mica is a barefoot and bell bottoms kind of girl and seeing her here dressed like she’s running a corporate takeover is unsettling in a very unspecific way.

“What the hell are you doing here?” I say almost out of breath.

“I told you to leave town. I thought I was pretty clear. It cost a lot of chits to get you out of that building, and this isn’t even the city. You stick around any longer and I won’t have the pull to get you out even if I was so inclined.”

“I don’t understand,” I say.

Mica crosses the space between us and hands me a large brown envelope from inside her purse.

“I had Don get it out of your Hotel room before the cops had a chance to search it.”

I squeeze the package and feel the unmistakeable shape of a handgun.”

“I’m assuming that was for me,” Mica says. “That was misguided of you, but more than likely you’ll still need it, so I suggest you keep it on you.”

I squint and my mind does somersaults trying to connect the dots.

“Mal, it’s not important that you understand everything. What is important is that you don’t end up in jail. That’s important. To me it’s important, so go get your wife and take a little trip. Mexico is supposed to be great this time of year.

I stare blankly at her.

“Nod your head if you understand.”

I nod.

Mica turns and starts to walk away, then pauses.

“Mal.”

“Yeah.”

“Those ladies. The ones at the Hotel.”

“Erica and Robin,” I say.

“They aren’t your friends Mal. Don’t let them know where you’re going.”

I frown.

“Get gone now,” Mica says. “Stay gone.”

 

 

 

Chapter 16

I’m staring out the window of the Cadillac that picked me up at the jail. We are parked under a huge oak tree on a residential street across from a small brick house. The address is the same one that came up when I Googled ‘Allie Stanley Law Offices’ and at first I assume it made a mistake and gave me her home address, then I notice a small white sign posted on the brick wall next to the mailbox

“A. Stanley Pet Rescue, Jewelry Design, and Legal Services.”

I lean forward and squint at the sign to make sure I read it right and scratch my head

dumbfounded that this is who Elle would choose to represent us.

“I beat her a lot.”

I jump backwards and my heart tries to climb out of my throat as a pretty young brunette sticks her head in the window of the car.

“Hi!” she says cheerfully.

I choke and cough trying to catch my breath.

“You were trying to figure out why Elle had you come here right?”

I glare back and bob my head.

“Yeah, I suppose,” I say.

“Right, guess I can’t blame you, although, you’d be surprised how similar pet rescue and defense law can be.”

“I’m sure I would,” I stammer.

“Right, and well, I just like making jewelry so I decided to put it on the sign, but to be honest I’m not really all that good at it.”

“How did-”

“You’ve been parked out here staring at my house for like fifteen minutes,” she says. “Did you think I wasn’t going to notice a big black Cadillac?”

“I guess I didn’t think about it,” I confess.

“Right, seems like there’s been quite a bit of that going around, huh?”

“I’m sorry?” I say.

“I beat her a lot,” Allie says and opens up the car door and climbs in the back next to me. “That’s why Elle hired me. She’s a pretty good lawyer that wife of yours, but I beat her all the damn time.”

“Okay,” I say.

She smiles at me.

“Right, so, you’re in a lot of trouble Mal.”

I nod.

“I gather that much, but why?”

“Mmmm, right,” she sighs. “I suppose we’ll get to that too, in a minute, but right now you’re in trouble because I can’t be your lawyer.”

“Oh!” I say surprised.

“Yeah,” she says sounding disappointed. “But you really need me Mal. Like, for real, I don’t think anyone else can help you.”

“Okay,” I say sounding even more confused. “So, then, why can’t you be my lawyer?”

“Because,” she says like it’s the most obvious thing in the world. She leans in close to me and whispers “Your wife.”

“Oh,” I say the fog only partly lifting. “Oh, you can’t represent us both?”

“Well yeah,” she snorts. “I mean, you know, legally I can, but…” she trails off and makes wide eyes at me. I look back completely lost.

She gives me a small pout and sighs again.

“Excuse me sir?” she says leaning forward into the front of the car. “Excuse me, would you mind leaving the car for a bit. Ya know, just take a little walk.”

The Uber driver looks back at her like she’s on meth.

“Uh, no. This is my car lady and y’all have been sitting in here too long anyways. Why don’t you get out and take a walk.”

Allie frowns and scoots closer to him.

“Actually,” she says. “Since I’m an officer of the court, and this man here is my client, under US statute 473.21B any space that we occupy together becomes a protected council space and we can demand privacy at any time even if the space is owned privately by a third party. Moreover, failure on your part to comply with a request for privacy entitles me to file a Higgins motion in federal court asking that you be-”

“Okay okay, fuck, I get it, I’m leaving. How long do you need?”

“fifteen minutes would be great,” Allie says sweetly. “Thanks so much.”

The driver shuts off the engine and gets out of the car grumbling something about none of this being worth it.

“Wow,” I say. “I have to say, I didn’t know any of that either.”

“Any of what?” she asks in an airy tone.

“That stuff you just said. About protected spaces and section b12 or whatever.”
She laughs.

“Oh, that. That’s all bullshit I made up. I just wanted him to leave so we could talk privately.”

I look back at her in awe.

“Look Mal,” Allie says. “I need to help you, but I’m hampered by Elle not knowing that you’re involved.”

“I’m sorry, what?” I blurt.

“Mal, she assumes that this is about her, about one of her cases, but you and I know that this is about you and your relationship with Mica Kole.”

I feel like someone just hit me in the gut with a baseball bat.

“Uh, Mica was my- I mean I used to work for her. Uh, at the restaurant.”

“Mal, this is what I’m talking about.”

I run my fingers through my hair and take a deep breath.

“Mal, twenty-five gallons of gasoline was placed under your bed, and then detonated by a phone call made from your cell.”

I look over at Allie who is now staring at me with dead eyes.

“Mal, I can help you. I can, but first you have to tell Elle what you do and who you do it for.”

“I can’t do that!” I shout.

Allie puts a hand on my shoulder.

“I know Mal, but you’re gonna have to.”

There’s a long silence.

“Come on kiddo, “ she says. “We’ll do it together.”

She opens the car door and we climb out onto the serene suburban street under the warm midday sun.

“Ooh, I know what. You can buy her some jewelry, women LOVE jewelry. I’ll show you what I’ve got and help you pick something out. She’s a December stone right?”

I follow her up her driveway towards the front door.

“Oh hey, by the way Mal, how’d you get out of jail so fast?”

“Mica got me out,” I chuckle.

Allie stops walking.

“Oh Mal, you are in a lot of trouble.”

 

Chapter 17

Elle stares at me with cow’s eyes as I go through the story. I explain everything. How I met Mica, the kinds of things I did for her, the other people under her thumb and how I got out. I tell her about the money I got when she let me go and that she told me to get out of town. I tell her about the gun I got from Adam Pilsen and about Don Lorah retrieving it from the hotel room. I explain the situation with the safe and Detective Upton and Fire Inspector Rodden. I finish with who got me out of jail and what she said when she did.

It’s pretty quiet for a while after I finish. Elle looks away from me and avoids looking back. She’s got a peculiar frown on her face that I’ve seen many times before. I call it her “thinking face” and it’s never good news if it’s there because of you. I assume she’s angry, but that’s an emotion not betrayed by her expression.

After a while Elle lets out a long sigh, runs her fingers through her hair and stands up. She paces back and forth in Allie’s office pausing to say something, then, not finding the words, goes back to pacing without saying anything at all. This cycle repeats for what seems like hours.

“Malcolm,” Allie finally says.

I look up at her.

“Are you sure that’s really his name?” Elle spits under her breath.

“Elle-”

“Mal,” Allie interrupts. “I think, well, do you think, uh maybe I need to talk to Elle alone for a minute.”

I glance at her, then look back at Elle who is still facing away from me. I stand up silently and walk out of the room.

I pace around the small reception space for a bit, then wander out and find the living space of the house. The inside is meticulously clean and tastefully decorated in a modern country motif. I wander through the living room, dining room and kitchen until I find a large screened in porch out back.

It has two walls lined with at least a dozen clean stainless steel cages, each containing a small to medium sized dog yapping or barking respectively. The last cage on the end has a slightly larger dog with seven itty bitty puppies suckling at it’s tit.

The mother dog as well as six of the puppies appear to be some kind of yellow lab mutt, but the seventh pup looks a little lost. It’s shaped the same at the others, but with the coloring and markings of a German Sheppard.

I open the cage and pick him up off of his mother. He wiggles in my hands and gives a chirpy bark. I nuzzle him to my face and kiss the soft hair on the top of his head.

“Ooh ooh ooh!” comes the flighty excited voice of my lawyer. “Ya know what women love more than jewelry?”

I look up and see Elle standing next to her staring down at me.

“Puppies!” Allie squeals.

I smile.

“What about it Mal?” Elle says softly, her voice cracking slightly. “Ya wanna get a dog?”

I look at her with all my love and nod once.

“What’s this fella’s name?” I ask.

“Actually,” Allie says. “I’ve been calling him Malcolm.”

 

 

 

Chapter 18

“What do you know about Gavin Gayle?” Allie asks.

I feel my muscles stiffen and my stomach somersault. Elle just laughs.

“Come on Allie,” she says. “I see where you’re going with this, but Gavin Gayle is a story. It’s a morality tale about where things can go when government corruption gets out of control.

Besides, the parallels aren’t quite there. Mica is a restaurateur that, apparently, runs a gang of thugs on the side not some big city State’s Attorney using her power to create a personal assassin; and Mal’s never been to prison.

I shift in my seat, I too see where Allie is going, but I immediately know she’s right and Elle is looking at it the wrong way.

“My thing is,” I chime in, “I’m starting to get the feeling that it isn’t Mica who tried to kill us. Tried to kill me. I’m actually starting to suspect that she really is trying to help.”

Allie nods.

“I agree,” she says. “But that doesn’t mean she’s not involved. If anything, it suggests that she does know what’s going on and probably exactly who’s behind it.”

“But it’s just a STORY!” Elle insists again. “None of this is real. We are in REAL trouble. REAL danger. We need to be looking at REAL solutions.”

Allie gives a pitying smile to Elle and sighs.

“Elle, you’d be surprised how many of the urban legends and old wives tales you hear are actually based in reality. Gavin was, well, he is a real man, and the stories you’ve heard are more truth than fiction.”

“I highly doubt-” Elle starts, but Allie cuts her off.

“Elle, you’re just going to have to take my word on this one. Gavin is in the past, he’s not active any more, but, I promise you friend, he exists and he did exactly what you’ve heard he did.”

“How do you know?” Elle asks skeptically.

“Do you really imagine that that’s something I’d be able to tell you Elle?”

Elle frowns.

“If I told you that the tooth fairy was real, but that you’d just have to take my word for it, would you?”

“Well, if you’d just introduced me to the Easter Bunny,” Allie looks at me then back to Elle, “Then yeah, I probably would.”

Elle stays quiet.

“Look,” Allie says. “What you have to understand is that Gavin was a symptom, not of a corrupt individual, but of an entrenched culture of corruption. That’s not something that goes away overnight.”

Elle nods.

“When Gavin got out it left a hole. An empty role that the culture didn’t know how to fill any other way.”

“Okay,” Elle says. “But we already know from Mal that Mica has a whole team of guys like him out there doing this shit. Him getting out isn’t leaving that same kind of hole in the system.”
Allie shakes her head in frustration.

“You’re not getting it Elle.”

“What am I not getting?”

I stand up and walk over to Elle and put my hand on her shoulder.

“Elle sweetheart,”

She looks up at me with frightened and confused eyes.

“Elle, I’m not the one that replaced Gavin. I’m not the one that filled the hole. Mica is.”